– Sandy Kerr, Future Nation Schools Lead Teacher: Languages

Sandy Kerr is a seasoned educator with over 30 years of teaching experience. She holds a BA degree and two diplomas in education. Sandy also writes, reviews and edits English Language and Literature textbooks for Macmillan, Vivlia, Pearson and Via Afrika.


Much has been written about 21st Century learning and teaching: about preparing students for careers that do not exist and about the four Cs: Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical thinking. The word ‘teacher’ has been spurned in favour of new buzz words like ‘facilitator’, ‘learning activator and ‘education specialist’…

What is missing in these conversations is a focus on the true role of a great teacher in the learning space and process. Teaching is an ancient and noble profession, and while the rules of engagement are changing in modern classrooms, nothing can replace the intense, delicate balance that exists between teacher and student. This is a relationship like none other. It involves expectation, aspiration, openness, mindfulness, reflection, laughter and fun. It is deeply grounded in trust and truth.

Inexperienced teachers are sometimes focused on the notion that they need to be taken seriously by their students, to be in charge, to let their students know that they mean business. They do not consciously think about the creation of a significant relationship with their students, they are intent on teaching… But despite this, relationships built on trust, acknowledgement of boundaries and mutual respect lead to those built on mutual care and concern.

Teachers are always at their most successful when they have meaningful relationships with the students in their care. A great teacher feels a sense of responsibility for the well-being and progress of the student, and knows each as an individual, warts ‘n all. This does not happen overnight, and sometimes, these relationships develop despite the goodwill on the part of the student, or the teacher, or indeed both of them! A tenacious teacher will often reach the heart and the mind of a reluctant student: the mind can be engaged by meaningful interaction mastering skills and exploring content that matters; the heart is another thing altogether!

A student exposes vulnerability in the learning process, and a great teacher acknowledges that, and in a truthful, focused way guides the student towards growth. The teacher sets high expectations and demands a high level of performance from the student, creates learning experiences that put the student in the driver’s seat, and then steps aside. Great teachers do not step out of the picture – they are always there guiding, consoling, redirecting, celebrating, encouraging. It is this that wins the heart of students!

This is not a one-way process. Great teachers are great because of their interactions with many students over a lifetime in the classroom. Many will assert that they have learned as much from their students as they were able to teach. Lessons in resilience, compassion, determination, ubuntu, humility, empathy are among those taught by students to their teachers. Students never set out to do this in the classroom or in their own learning process. It is the trusting relationship between student and teacher that allows for the rich two-way exchange of experience.

While the world of the future when their students are adults, will be unrecognisable to teachers of today, great teachers still have an enormous role to play. Of course, this is true of the skills developed in the classroom, and the interaction with the knowledge in the various subject areas. But now, more than ever, as their students navigate an ever-changing world, teachers can help them to build an eagerness for change and challenge, a confidence to tackle the unknown, and a belief in themselves that they will be up to the job.

What teachers can help to develop are the skills and attitudes that will be currency to be used in the future: personal moral conduct, respect of others, and a moral balance that will impact the world of tomorrow. Today’s teachers can provide the fertile ground for these qualities to be practised and developed. Great teachers know this. Great teachers are doing this.

John Steinbeck gets the last word in this post. He said: ‘I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.’

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